The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change

by Eric Magrane

If you want to learn more about the impacts and science of climate change, and how we might respond effectively to its challenges, you might read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report or visit the U.S.’s National Climate Assessment’s interactive website

Or, you could read a comic book. 

The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change (Island Press, 2014), written by Yoram Bauman with illustrations by Grady Klein, offers a refreshingly concise and engaging background in earth systems science. Bauman, who proclaims himself “the world’s first and only stand-up economist,” will share some of his insights at the University of Arizona on September 29 during his performance, Comedy, Economics, and Climate Change

Sixty pages of the book's first section, Observations, whisk readers through a brief history of the planet and the Ice Ages and through the basics of carbon dioxide, energy, and climate science. One of my favorite frames from the book is here: In describing the Keeling Curve, the famous graph that shows the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide from 1958 to the present, Bauman and Klein place the curve in relation to other iconic images such as the Mona Lisa, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, and Edvard Munch’s The Scream

The book’s second section, Predictions, outlines likely scenarios of temperature change and effects of global warming on water and biodiversity. While this section illustrates what Earth is likely to face as the planet warms, it also provides a great introduction for thinking about how science deals with uncertainty in making predictions. It primarily addresses a “business as usual” future, in which carbon dioxide emissions continue to skyrocket, particularly in developing countries like China and India. 

The advantage of the comic book form, which allows for both concision and humor, really comes into play when illustrating the transformations of the world with a predicted 4 degree Celsius temperature rise. Here, a spread of postcards does the trick. With slogans such as, “When it comes to latitude 50 is the New 40,” “Welcome to the Arctic Circle (Well, there used to be icebergs here),” or “Siberia, the New Agricultural Heartland,” the book uses humor to make the point about something that is all too serious for many places and communities in the world. 

Bauman’s economics chops—he holds a Ph.D. in the field—particularly stand out in the Actions section, which makes a strong case for carbon pricing. This last third of the book covers the  tragedy of the commons, outlining the sometimes competing motivations of individual self-interest with that of what’s best for a group, and provides an overview of some science fiction-like geo-engineering fixes.

The final section also offers a clear and succinct description of flexible, market-based instruments in conjunction with regulation (i.e., cap and trade) and a compelling argument for the need for a low-carbon economy. 

The economic focus echoes back to the book’s introduction, where Bauman proposes that, along with climate change, the story of continued economic growth will also dominate the twenty-first century.  “Capitalism and free-market economics are going to create a lot of new wealth… and give many more people the opportunity to pursue their dreams,” he writes. While capitalism and the market economy may have this trajectory, this is certainly a debatable assumption, as many political ecologists or critical development scholars might be quick to point out. 

Judging from some of the hilarious YouTube clips you can find of Bauman’s stand-up (“microeconomists are people who are wrong about specific things and macroeconomists are wrong about things in general,” he explains, in “Principles of Economics Translated”), I’d wager that Bauman is aware of these contradictions. 

Humans aren’t necessarily rational actors, and that is one reason this comic book is appealing. It skillfully mixes the key facts of climate change with the playful and insightful juxtapositions that the comic form allows. Science communicators take notice. And if you’re looking for a gift for that family member who’s still a climate skeptic, this may be it. 

Yoram Bauman will be at the UA for a free performance on Monday, September 29 from 5:30 to 7:30 pm in Berger Auditorium, McClelland Hall. 

Images from The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change courtesy of Island Press.